Effective Coaching – what’s new?

Sometimes you just have to return to something old to find something new... prior to running an executive coaching programme last month, I wanted to read something that would re-invigorate me and did my usual amazon ‘haul’. Funnily enough (but not for my credit card) one of the oldest existing books on my own bookshelf, Miles Downey’s book, ‘Executive Coaching’, did it for me. It’s not a manual or a ‘how-to’ book on coaching (if you want that, John Whitmore, Angus McLeod and Mary Beth O’Neill deliver in spades) but it does provoke and inspire in equal measure.

Downey writes of the need to bring humanity back to the workplace – and his book is largely directed at those working in business coaching. It’s a very humanistic, compassionate approach – the role of the coach is not to mould automatons who will go to work unquestioningly, but to help people find their creative side, explore their imagination, recognise their intelligence, skills, passions, etc. The workplace benefits because the workers are fulfilled and achieve a balanced lifestyle which brings a fresh vitality to their work.

Putting the ongoing dialogue between a coach and a ‘player’ to one side (I struggle to relate to these fake conversations), here’s a couple of things I found useful to pass on. I like Downey’s ‘spectrum of coaching skills’. Too often, coaches are trained to only use non-directive skills (‘just keep asking questions’) without the experience to recognise that their coachees/clients also want advice, guidance and feedback. This isn’t to diminish the ongoing use of questions, but to encourage a flexible approach and a maturity to recognise what the need of the client is at that moment in time.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Downey’s approach to feedback. One of my (many!) bugbears about feedback is the proliferation of the ‘sandwich’ approach (positive-negative-positive), as it sets everyone up for failure, stemming from the belief that a difficult conversation needs to be ‘hidden’. Instead, Downey suggests, “there is no such thing as negative feedback and there is no such thing as positive feedback. There is just feedback – data”.

What happens with feedback is that people attach a judgement to the data to suit their purpose in that moment. That purpose is usually ‘to be right’. And then the receiver responds to the judgement and not to the data. The role of the coach, Downey suggests, is to give the data as cleanly as possible so that the coachee can receive it, assess it and make their own decision as to how to proceed.

That said, in giving feedback is it nigh impossible to communicate only the data and one of the most powerful concepts in coaching is emphasised again in this book.  Like it or not, the receiver will always get some sense of your intent and the emotional charge you carry. If your intent is suspect, even the most well structured of coaching conversations will disintegrate. If your intent is positive, the most difficult of feedback can usually be received well and acted on.

Great book; highly accessible; did what I wanted, provided re-invigoration!